February 11, 2010 / 12:17 AM / 9 years ago

Mark Ruffalo talks about directing debut on "Sympathy"

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Actor Mark Ruffalo has been on what he calls “a rollercoaster ride” in recent years.

After surviving a brain tumor in 2002, he spent years prepping his directorial debut, “Sympathy for Delicious,” a comedic drama about a paraplegic DJ-turned-faith healer, which debuted at January’s Sundance Film Festival.

After his brother Scott was killed during preproduction Ruffalo decided to forge ahead with the film to honor Scott’s memory and Ruffalo’s real-life paraplegic friend — Christopher Thornton, who wrote and co-stars with Ruffalo in the film.

Ruffalo is now re-emerging triumphantly: “Delicious” won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and the actor’s performance in Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy “The Kids Are All Right” helped it land a major distribution deal at the festival.

He’ll soon be seen opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s thriller “Shutter Island,” and he talked with THR’s Gregg Goldstein about Scorsese, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and his tumultuous journey.

The Hollywood Reporter: What did you learn from directors that you were able to use for “Delicious”?

Ruffalo: (“Zodiac” director David) Fincher sat with me for five hours, going over one of my later cuts scene by scene — it was like a master class. Working with Marty (Scorsese)...and hearing about the pitfalls he’s experienced. He said, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you what kind of movie to make or how to make it. You’ve got to make the movie that you see.’ That’s good to hold onto when you’re navigating through all these opinions.

THR: What prompted your desire to direct a film?

Ruffalo: I’ve known my friend Chris for 22 years — 16 years ago, he had a climbing accident and ended up in a chair. I directed him in two plays and it meant a lot to me that he get a chance, you know? Someone so talented kinda cut down like that? He was pitching me a lot of ideas and I said, “Dude, that’s the one you have to write.” It’s been 10 years, at least a hundred drafts and seven years knocking on doors.

THR: Since you also play a Catholic priest in the film, did either of you draw upon a religious background?

Ruffalo: Chris turned back to his Catholicism after his tragedy, and I know that was a balm for him. In my household we were all Catholic Italians, I went to a Catholic school, and then my grandmother became a born-again Christian and my father a Baha’i. We were all living in the same house and it was crazy. (laughs). (My grandmother said) we were all going to Hell. For her birthday, I went and got saved by Jimmy Swaggart at the First Assembly of God church! I was nine years-old. It was intense...When I had his hand on my head and wasn’t feeling anything, I (thought to myself) “Dude, you’re going straight to hell! Jesus doesn’t want you, dude! You’re the Antichrist!” So I’m on my knees waiting to be struck down by the spirit of the Lord, as all the other kids around me had, and finally I just took a dive! That was really my first acting gig.

THR: It was just a few months before production on “Sympathy” began that your brother passed away. Was there any point when you considered not going through with it?

Ruffalo: Yes. It remains to me a devastating experience, and I...I didn’t know. I immediately dropped out of the movie. And (producer) Andrea Sperling said “We’ll suspend the preproduction. Why don’t you take some time off, get your head together. You’re in a bad place. I totally understand and respect whatever choice you make.” I try to make meaning of this and turn it into something that was a tribute to him. To dedicate my grief to him and his memory. So I decided to take a couple months off and then make this movie. There were a lot of people counting on me, so I just pushed into the work (laughs wryly). And then I had to pay for it afterwards.

THR: Have you had a chance to take any time off?

Ruffalo: Yeah. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reevaluating...everything. When you go through a thing like that, you try to make sense of it. I don’t have an agent right now. I’m just kind of waiting to see what comes up. We shut down just after July until about (mid-December) — we ran out of money! We never had the finishing funds, but once we got accepted to Sundance, it started rolling in. Mostly I was with my (wife and three kids), and enjoying them. We moved from Los Angeles to upstate New York. It’s very tranquil and remote. Nobody’s watching movies there, which is nice.

THR: And you’re still doing OK, healthwise?

Ruffalo: Oh yeah, I’m great healthwise. (Laughs) Yeah, I’ve had my share of it, man.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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